Alzina Stone Dale wrote this book, “to show that Eliot was a whole person, not one of his ‘Hollow Men,'(3) and to encourage Christians to read Eliot as a guide to our times”(4). This book was written from “a Christian perspective”(3) for these purposes. In an attempt to be a “sympathetic critic,”(4) the author puts emphasis on the triumphs of Eliot’s Christian beliefs.
The biographical material in the book is from relatives, friends, and critics of Eliot. The first name listed in the “Acknowledgments” is Mrs. T. S. Eliot who wrote the author to say, “she was glad that (Dale) wanted to deal with the religious side of her husband’s life and work since it was usually avoided or deprecated” by others who wrote about him.
The First chapter, “Roots,” opens on the subject of Eliot’s American homeland vs. his residing in England. Eliot admitted being American-born was “crucial both to his life and his work,” says Dale(9). Eliot also commented that his works reflect his exposure to both American and European cultures, and his writings would not have been the same had he never gone to England or not been born in America(9).
Dale says the work of Eliot and Eliot himself can be best understood by his upbringing described as “American Puritan of English stock”(9). The Eliot’s family motto, published in the late nineteenth century, ” ‘Trace et fac’ can be translated ‘Be silent and get to work’ “(13). Because of this, it is no wonder to me that the works of Eliot are so intense and serious. They have been influenced by many years of study, and perhaps Eliot expected the same extensive studies from his readers.
In chapter Three, Dale brings to light an insight into the influences on Eliot and his work by three writers: Laforgue, Baudelaire, and Dante. Eliot read Laforgue after he had read Baudelaire and Dante. Eliot identified with the temperament of Laforgue(36). Lafougue’s influence on Eliot was greater than just someone Eliot could relate to. Laforgue’s writing “helped Eliot discover his own form and gave him a model with which to restructure his own work”(36).
Baudelaire’s works encompassed some of what we see in Eliot’s work today. Baudelaire saw the unattractiveness of cities and saw Dantean Civilization rotting(36). Baudelaire was one of the earliest writers to handle this decay and ugliness in the form of poetry. From him, Eliot learned how to make his English poetry depict “sordid aspects of the cities he had seen, as well as fusing and juxtaposing that grim realism with fantastic visions”(36). This, I would say, is a major exercise Eliot used in his poetry. The poems, especially the latter ones, combine a mixture of dismal images that overlap and become complex. “He taught Eliot how to make the unpoetical into poetry”(36).
Of the three writers Eliot studied mentioned in the text, the most significant to his development was Dante. Eliot wrote three essays about Dante that are mentioned by Alzina Stone Dale: “the 1920 essay…defended the possibility of a philosophic poet; the second discussed the Divine Comedy as poetry; and the last described how as a young Harvard Sophomore he first met the real ‘il miglior fabbro’ of his own career”(36).
The influence of Dante’s work is apparent in Eliot’s poems, footnotes, and epigrams. “Dante’s European world view, Christian beliefs, and Thomist philosophy became a part of the young Eliot”(37). Dante was responsible for Eliot’s conversion to Orthodox Christianity and his views of an Orthodox Christian Community both of which Eliot was quite committed to according to the author(37). Dante was Eliot’s ideal. Dante represented a “United Christendom and a United Europe”, and Eliot’s goal was to become a philosopher-poet like him(37).
A very interesting, note-worthy statement made in T.S. Eliot: The Philosopher Poet by Alzina Stone Dale is the fact that Eliot’s later works can be cataloged in Dantean terms(36). Eliot’s “Inferno extended from ‘J. Alfred Prufrock’ through ‘The Waste Land’. His Purgatorio was contained in ‘The Hollow Men’ and ‘Ash Wednesday’. His Paradiso was ‘Four Quartets’ “(36).
Many references to Dante’s works were amongst the notes to “The Waste Land” book published in New York. Also included in the notes was what Dale calls “clues to Eliot’s interests and evidence of Eliot’s turning to Christianity”(83). The notes also included sources like St. Augustine, the Buddha, Shakespeare, and the Bible. This religious side of Eliot and his work is the main focus of this book and the main concern of Alzina Stone Dale.
Dale feels strongly that Eliot sought to relate a ” Christian message” through his work and though critics may attempt to disregard or do-away with it by “calling it polemic” but that ” does not make Christianity untrue” (7). ” Eliot did not invent his own version of Christianity…or practice a kind of Modernist Christian ‘improvisation’ “, in fact, Eliot practiced preserved, traditional faith publicly (91) . Privately, however, he grappled with the despair and ” skepticism that were part of his birthright as a modern man” (91).
Eliot’s life, work , and Christian experience is often compared with that of C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers in the book. “Like Chesterton before him and C.S. Lewis shortly afterward, Eliot… discovered that his ethical upbringing which had taught him to substitute good works for grace, did not help him deal with his sense of sin”(82). ” The shape of [Eliot’s] life shows a clear turning, or conversion that affected his life and work much the way a similar experience affected his contemporary, C.S. Lewis” (4). Lewis’ relations were not very good with Eliot, Lewis had once submitted an essay to The Criterion accusing both Eliot and Tillyard for ” The Personal Heresy” in their essays about Dante and Milton (154). Needless to say, Eliot did not publish the essay in his magazine.
The arrival of WW II affected Eliot and his fellow Christians. Eliot felt that “Western civilization had given away its birthright for ‘peace in our time’ “(137). In the last ” Criterion editorial Eliot agreed with C. S. Lewis who… preached … that ‘business as usual,’ especially in the arts, was more important than ever”(137). Eliot, Lewis, and Sayers had a “shared sense of failure” at the time the war began that led to a “driving need to reexamine Christendom’s roots in hopes of resurrecting it”(137).
For all three, the war meant standing up and taking “more active roles as Christian spokesmen and opening up wider and different audiences”(137). As a result, the war meant taking on a heavier work load . “Lewis prepared… the Kilns windows with blackout curtains. Sayers… helped…knit helmets and stockings,…[and] Eliot trained to be an air raid warden by putting out practice fires”(140). Though their efforts may have temporarily taken away from their work, ” the fruit of their wartime experiences of fear, monotony, and overwork was to become some of their best work”(140).
T.S. Eliot is described by Dale as a “appealing, highly intelligent, shy, and serious minded man with a hidden fondness for friendship and fun, one who spoke in the voice of a major prophet”(4). He was a delegate for “a right order in the soul and a right order in the commonwealth”(4). Dale believes that he followed in the crusade begun by predecessors such as Plato, St. Augustine, and, chiefly, Dante (4). Eliot carried this out successfully by writing “in modern times, when artists had no framework of accepted traditions and beliefs except to create their own”(198).
This made his efforts even more creditable in the eyes of the author. The author plainly insists that “if in his early poems Eliot caught the boredom and impotence of the century, then he took on the daunting task of testifying to spiritual concerns that his world had lost the capacity to imagine”(7). The insight Eliot portrayed in his work and in his actions gave the author what she believed to be reason enough to write about him as a philosopher of Christianity.
Three reasons are given by the author testifying that Eliot belongs in with the class of philosophers such as Dante “by the terms [Eliot] hailed Dante”(198). First, she says, he “was an attentive student…and a painstaking practitioner of his craft(198). Second, Eliot’s “emotional range…expresses everything from depravity’s despair to the beatific vision”(198). And third “in his day Eliot was the most European, the least provincial poet, without ceasing to be local”(198).
I believe that the objectives originally set forth in the book were satisfactorily fulfilled. The author took on a very large responsibility by approaching Eliot’s life from a religious and biographical standpoint in relation to his work. I still feel that it is truly impossible now to completely know the extent to which Eliot ‘s life imposed on or effected his works. Although, the book is insightful to the life of Eliot, ultimately it is left upon the reader to decide just how much of Eliot’s life to read into his work. The religious aspects of his work is, no doubt, present but one might ask if it is the condoning or questioning of religion which Eliot presents. I do agree that there is an answer but I am not sure Alzina Stone Dale has found it in this book.
Her points and arguments are well meant and appropriately documented, but the final judgement upon this issue can only be absolutely confirmed by Eliot himself. Also, I do agree that Eliot has set forth a modern concepts for the Twentieth century to ponder and from that draw a personal understanding of what the reader as an individual truly believes. But, the universal outlook of humanity and society that Dale says “can help us redeem our time”(199) is but through the eyes of T.S. Eliot.
T. S. Eliot: The Philosopher Poet by Alzina Stone Dale. Harold Shaw Publishers, 1988